Back at the start of the year, Lorna and myself decided it would be a good idea to try and get a trip in to Ireland this year. Our initial thoughts were cycle touring around the Ring of Kerry area, however, being on a budget and with transport options to get there and back amounting to well over £100 each, we turned our attention to Northern Ireland and the Mourne Mountains, just south of Belfast. It soon transpired that we could buy one of ScotRail’s “Rail & Sail” tickets for a little under £60 return each, all the way from Lancaster – a bargain not to be missed!
The trip panned out as follows: A day of travelling, followed by a night in the Hostelling International hostel in Belfast that evening, then another day of travelling to a campsite in Bloody Bridge (on the east coast, just south of Newcastle). Three nights at said campsite, and then another day of travelling to Tollymore Forest Park (just west of Newcastle), two nights there and finally a day back in Belfast and a final night in the same hostel. We took our climbing gear with us, making for a very heavy load and a lot of hard work lugging it around.
For our first day out on the hill, the weather forecast was good, and so we decided to make the most of this and go climbing. From Bloody Bridge, we walked up to meet the Mourne Wall (see later) and then down to Annalong Buttress in the Annalong valley. The rock type of the Mournes is predominantly gritstone, widely heralded by climbers as “God’s own rock”. I’ve only been climbing on it a few times, but I am really starting to get a taste for it – especially so as I worked my way up Britton’s Route, enjoying the fantastic grip it offers and great exposure smearing my way up slabs, grooves and cracks. I’ve got a feeling I ended up off route, as it felt much harder than the Diff grade it gets, but either way it was fantastic fun and probably one of the best leads I’ve done.
The next day, the forecast was quite a bit worse, with frequent showers expected all day long. Walking was hence the choice, and we did quite a long one (20km / 1600m ascent) taking in the central ridge to the east of Ben Crom reservoir, and also Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, Slieve Donard. The weather was as expected, and typically April-y, with plenty of showers interspersed with quite a bit of sun, and a lot of wind.
The campsite in Bloody Bridge was well hidden away – in fact I had to phone the owner to get directions to where it actually was, as there are no signs to it from the road. We were the only ones staying there, which was probably fortunate as there were only a couple of toilets for quite a large camping area. The facilities were clean and adequate – pretty much what you’d expect for the £6 per person per night. The owner was very friendly, even offering a lift to Newcastle should we want any supplies (there are no shops in Bloody Bridge).
Tollymore’s campsite was quite a bit different, catering for caravans and campervans as well. The facilities were quite dated but cleaned regularly, and the showers were great (apart from the lack of shower curtain meaning it was difficult not to get your clothes wet). They charge £16.50 per pitch per night, which we thought was a bit unfair for campers like ourselves taking up a fraction of the space of some of the bigger caravans (though there is also a charge of £4.50 a day for any vehicles). Fortunately, the guy who took our money must have also thought it was unfair as he only charged us for one evening instead of two!
Our final day’s walking saw the best weather we had all week, with plenty of sunshine but still bitterly cold winds. We returned to the Mourne Wall, but this time its northern-most section along the Mourne’s northern-most mountains. The Mourne Wall is an impressive 22-mile long dry stone wall built between 1904 and 1922 to keep livestock out of the catchment area for the Ben Crom and Silent Valley reservoirs. At its tallest, it reaches 8 feet, and maintains a width of over 2 feet for its entire length – making it plenty wide enough to walk along, although I presume such a practice is discouraged. I also presume that it is no longer used for its initial purpose, owing to a large number of breaches along its length, and the presence of livestock within its boundaries. Nowadays, it brings a great deal to the tourist industry of the area, especially around the Slieve Donard, where on a sunny weekend hoards of tourists can be seen making the ascent by following the wall up from the south and across from the west.
We started off up the Trassey Track, following the route of the Newcastle Way and the Mourne Way, before branching off up an old quarry track to the col between Slieve Bearnargh and Slieve Meelmore. After a delightful contour around to Slieve Bearnargh’s summit col, we popped up both summits and carried on along the wall. The walking was easier than the previous walk, and a well-trodden path exists along most of the Wall. The final slog up Slieve Commedagh wasn’t as bad as I had imagined, and there we were rewarding with quite stunning views out across not just the Mournes, but also Newcastle, the east coast and up to Belfast.
Instead of rushing back all in the same day, we split the journey over two again, and spent most of the following day exploring Belfast. We took a walk down to Queen’s University and the Botanic Gardens, and spent a good deal of time in the Ulster Museum. That evening, we went for a pizza at a little cafe-cum-pizzeria near the university, called “Cafe Renoir”. I would highly recommend it to anyone staying in Belfast – the pizzas were tasty and imaginative, the coffee was lovely, the desserts were all home made, generouly-portioned and delicious and the atmosphere was nice and relaxed.
Despite the effort carrying around climbing gear, and the mixable weather, we both thoroughly enjoyed our trip and were happy to get the most out of this fantastic area of mountains.